More than a billion people do not have access to safe water and well over 2 billion people live without adequate sanitation. At any given time, more than half of the developing world’s population is suffering from one or more of the main diseases associated with unsafe water and poor sanitation.
For children, the chances of survival dwindle in the absence of these essentials. Every day, 6,000 children die of water-related diseases.Young children are the first to get sick and die from waterborne and sanitation-related illnesses—including diarrhoeal diseases and malaria.
The costs of inaction
Unsafe water and poor sanitation and hygiene result in countless deaths and a huge burden of disease among young children – almost all of it preventable.
More than four billion cases of diarrhea cause 2.2 million deaths—mostly of children under the age of five. As immune systems are progressively compromised with each bout of diarrhea, related illnesses indirectly kill millions more each year.
Parasitic illnesses, such as guinea worm and trachoma, abound in environments with unsafe water and deficient sanitation. At the very least they sap children of vitality – and at their worst cause blindness and sometimes death. Poor hygiene is a conduit for these diseases.
Failing to provide these basics has a huge economic toll. Forty billion work hours are lost in Africa each year to the need to carry water. In India, water-borne diseases cost an annual $600 million in lost production and medical treatment.
Without access to safe water and adequate sanitation, families remain mired in deplorable conditions. Young children die from preventable diseases. Those who survive are often unable to learn in school or succeed in life because of the legacy of ill health in their early years and the burden of recurring illnesses.
What must be done
Safe water, adequate sanitation and good hygiene practices are essential for young children to survive and thrive – to be healthy and to flourish both physically and mentally. They are also complementary. Provided together they reduce health risks for young children and their families far better than each component alone.
Families can help reduce waterborne and sanitation-related illnesses with basic hygienic practices. Combining hand washing, food protection and household hygiene reduces infant diarrhoea by 33 per cent. Safer excreta disposal cuts the incidence of childhood diarrhoea by 37 per cent. The simple act of washing hands with soap can reduce diarrhoeal diseases among adults and young children by 42 to 47 per cent.
One of the Millennium Development Goals, a set of time-bound, quantifiable development targets that have been endorsed by 189 nations, calls specifically for the proportion of people living without safe water and adequate sanitation to be cut in half by 2015. We are all responsible for fulfilling these commitments – from world leaders and governments to local communities and families.
Unless greater funding and more political will are commited throughout countries both rich and poor, the world will not meet this goal. The fact is, these are basic services, long a symbol of a nation or culture’s advancement. It is simply not acceptable for more than two billion people—one third of the world’s population to live without these basic elements of human rights.
The gains from safe water and adequate sanitation extend far beyond tackling disease. They transform lives. Household water reduces the burden on women and girls who often travel many kilometres to the nearest water source, giving them more time for school, childcare and income-producing activities.
World leaders must keep their word and provide safe water and adequate sanitation to every household. Children’s lives are in the balance.
UNICEF in action
Since the 1960s UNICEF has been on the ground delivering these most basic services. Today, UNICEF supports water, sanitation and hygiene projects in over 86 countries in Africa, Asia and the Americas, as a vital part of our work to ensure that children survive and thrive.
Oral rehydration therapy, adopted by UNICEF and WHO in the late 1970s, has helped manage diarrhoea and prevent deaths among children. Today, UNICEF is distributing and counseling people in the use of newly formulated oral rehydration salts, which, in combination with zinc supplementation can drastically reduce the number of diarrhea-related child deaths.
UNICEF devotes more than half its programme budget to helping children survive the early years. Safe water, basic sanitation and good hygiene are together an essential pillar of that foundation – along with health, nutrition, protection and early learning and care.
Whether hauling water to hospitals in Iraq, launching school sanitation and hygiene projects in Mozambique, working on arsenic mitigation in Bangladesh or improving sanitation and water for Argentina’s suburban poor, UNICEF recognizes the critical role of water, sanitation and hygiene in early childhood.
Access to these basics saves lives, improves learning capacities and increases income-producing options. When compared to the enormous returns, investing in water, sanitation and hygiene is a drop in the bucket.
Every year, nearly 11 million children die before reaching their fifth birthday, most from preventable causes. That is approximately, 30, 000 children per day. Another 300 million children suffer from illnesses caused by lack of clean water, poor nutrition and inadequate health services and care. Helping families ensure that their children survive and reach school age healthy and well-nourished, safe and confident and ready to learn is at the heart of UNICEF’s mission. Working in 158 countries, UNICEF is helping the world achieve the 2015 Millennium Development Goals by making every child's right to survive and thrive our top priority.
For more information contact:
Erin Trowbridge firstname.lastname@example.org 212-326-7172
United Nations Children’s Fund
3 UN Plaza,
New York, NY 10017, USA